Tom Russell “October in the Railroad Earth” (Proper, 2019)

It takes some sand to put out an album that shoots for “Jack Kerouac meets Johnny Cash in Bakersfield”. Tom Russell’s extensive resume and impeccable pedigree notwithstanding, it’s a high bar to set. The songs on his new album ‘October in the Railroad Earth’ easily sail over that bar. The album’s title track is borrowed from a lyrical poem by Kerouac and serves as both a reflection on and restatement of the urgent search that drove the beat poet. The final track is a return to the first song Russell ever learned, Johnny Cash’s ‘Wreck of the Old 97’. But it’s worth considering whether the album’s larger than life book-ends are merely points of contrast for the most pressing matters taken up in between.

Taking Russell literally, it is easy enough to envision Cash singing the title track to Kerouac. In doing so, it is equally easy to identify the centrality of the question “what’s fame really worth” to the album that follows. The second track on the album, ‘Small Engine Repair’ was written as the title track for an Irish film but it serves as the perfect transition point from the question Russell poses to Kerouac into the album’s search for answers. It is a deftly crafted snapshot of a life lived in obscurity but lived nonetheless with dignity, pride, hopes, and frustrations. Russell captures the stoicism that is at the centre of the main character’s repeated offer: “one day turn around, prices are fair”.

‘T-Bone Steak and Spanish Wine’ brings us along for the ride when the singer stops in to visit a place he hasn’t been for decades. The owner recognizes him immediately but sadly, though the special is “carved in stone on that old chalkboard sign”, the canyon has changed, the crowd has changed, and now “the music is all just background noise”.

‘Isadore Gonzalez’ examines the question of fame’s worth by recounting the tale of a Mexican cowboy who lies buried in England after a mishap in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. ‘Red Oak Texas’ approaches it through the tale of twin brothers, forgotten war heroes who “learned how to fight but not how to heal” and faded faster than the tales of their deeds. ‘Back Streets of Love’ listens in as a couple tries to navigate their life together and the pursuit of their dreams. They ultimately conclude that lost is exactly where they’re supposed to be.

The stand-out track on the album is ‘Hand-Raised Wolverines’. It steps away from the theme of fame and its costs but still speaks directly to it. Set against the background of polite conversations on a swiftly tilting planet, Russell balances poetic lyricism with dark humour. “All the rhetoric and craft beer morality” doesn’t add up to much when you’ve been “locked inside a cage with hand-raised wolverines”.

‘Highway 46’ takes a wide view of roots and kin as it reflects on Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Spade Cooley and Wynn Stewart in a wish to be “in Bakersfield tonight”. ‘Pass Me the Gun, Billy’ is a “true family tale . . . a Cowboy song” that draws the edges in closer. ‘When the Road Gets Rough’ finds Russell and his wife stuck in traffic with the band on the way to the next gig. He tells us that you “earn your pay on those 8-hour drives” but that it beats the alternatives.

By the time the album delivers us to the cover of Johnny Cash, the story of a man who let his own reputation and other people’s expectations determine his decisions with a catastrophic outcome serves as a clear capstone on the album’s explorations of the subject of fame.

A fantastic album from an exceptional songwriter
8/10

Author: Steven Rafferty

Writer, Musician, Political Junkie, Oilfield Hand in Recovery . . .

12 thoughts on “Tom Russell “October in the Railroad Earth” (Proper, 2019)”

  1. This is overall a cool well written review.
    However, we wish you had used a more objective term than “war hero”. Yeah, sure, Tom uses that term in the song as well as in his liner notes but that doesn’t mean that it’s the appropriate term. The objective term would be “combat veteran”. “War Hero” is a pro-military term & not objective at all. It’s offensive to anybody who is a pacifist be cause it implies that invading a foreign country & bombing villages etc etc is an heroic act.
    We expect something better than “war heroes” from anybody who is immersed in American folk songs. From a song as old as “Down By the Riverside/I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” to the songs of Phil Ochs you’ll always find pacifistic imagery & messages.

  2. First, let me say thank you very much for your kind words and for taking the time to post such a carefully considered reaction to my review. It is nice to see someone treat the art we enjoy as a point of departure for important conversations about the compelling topics and issues that it raises. To my mind, that is the most direct way that art and artists can influence the unfolding of the present into the future.

    I think that as listeners, it is our responsibility to have these conversations and to do so with respect for one another. I think that is how we cultivate communities that become places of positivity for the members within. I think that participating in positive communities is a way to generate and radiate positivity throughout broader spaces.

    I hear and appreciate your concern about the use of the term ‘war hero’. I agree that there is a strong anti-war tradition at the heart of American folk music. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I abhor violence in all forms. I personally believe that when disagreements devolve into violence it is due to a complete failure on the part of one or more parties concerned with respect to their moral, ethical, intellectual, and practical obligations to one another.

    In response to your concerns, I want to pull a little bit at some of threads that are woven in.

    I would challenge the notion that either artists or those who engage in conversations about art can or should pursue ‘objective’ language.

    First, there is the practical matter of compelling storytelling. In ‘Red Oak Texas’, Russell isn’t speaking directly about his beliefs about war. He is telling a story about particular people, in a particular place, who hold particular views and use particular language to express themselves. Whether those people are real or imagined is hardly an issue. They are real enough and the song Russell wrote is telling their story. To sanitize their language would be to erase the parts of them that don’t align with a certain world view. It would also make them less real, less compelling and less worthy of being at the center of a story that is worth telling.

    Next, I think it is important to consider whether using a more objective term in the review of the song would have done justice to the art and artist being reviewed.

    In my review, I discuss the question of the price of fame as one of the central themes of the album. To that end, I think citing Russell’s language choice in my discussion of the song does better service to the review as a whole precisely because ‘combat veterans’ are homogenized bodies while a ‘war hero’ is someone who experiences fame and renown from some group of people somewhere by virtue of what they did or what other people believe they have done while participating in a war.

    Finally, I think that it is worth noting that Russell’s story about the characters in ‘Red Oak Texas’ could hardly be considered pro-war. I would go further to suggest that the entire thrust of the song is to problematize the very idea of a ‘war hero’. I would even argue that it does so much more effectively than it would have been able to using a different choice of words. My choice to carry his language through directly was made out of a desire to highlight those considerations.

    I’m anxious to hear your thoughts in response to these observations. I think it is important to engage in exchanges such as this one in ways that open up paths to continued discussion rather than seeking to put a final point on the matter.

    I really would welcome your thoughts on what I’ve written so far. I would be even more pleased if this conversation spread and grew into something of greater significance on the topic of ‘war’ and its representations in Americana music.

    To that end, let me close by extending to you some questions that I hope you’ll think about and respond to.

    Is the engagement with war in general or with ‘warriors’ in particular as unproblematic as you suggest within the catalog of American folk music or within contemporary Americana? This is an honest and transparent question – not a pointed one meant to lead in a particular direction.

    I’m thinking about songs like Jason Isbell’s ‘Dress Blues’ which doesn’t use the term war hero but does paint a picture of a community welcoming home a fallen warrior with reverence. It is hardly a celebration of war but it does seem to capture an attitude that shouldn’t be overlooked.

    Another song that keeps coming to mind is Johnny Cash’s ‘Ballad of Ira Hayes’ where the central figure is specifically referred to as a hero but certainly not in a way that celebrates war or fails to raise important questions about who benefits from the value of a designation like ‘war hero’.

    Is it better to talk about songs like these in ‘objective’ terms? Or, do we do the songs and the messages they carry a disservice by neutralizing some of their most powerful weapons before we redeploy them in the conversations we have about them?

    Again, thank you for your response. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the explanations that I have offered for the choices that I made in my review. I’m even more anxious to hear your thoughts on the questions that came to me as I worked through them.

    Best,

    Steven

    1. Dear Steven,
      Thank you so very much for taking the time to write such a sincere, thoughtful & intelligent reply. We can tell that you are a person who has an open mind and an open heart. Reading your great reply really made our day and the fact that you put so much thought into writing it blew us away. Thanks for challenging and encouraging us to discuss Tom’s song as well as the representation of war in American Song.
      We’re on the road right now but we’ll certainly share some thoughts and will reply to your questions as soon as we find a peaceful moment.
      Blessings! Julia and Gina

  3. Sadly War has been instrumental in the development of an American National Identity. Militarism is so ingrained in American society that talking about it from a moral / ethic standpoint can often lead to conflict, arguments, blocking / banning people from public pages and drama & grief for everyone involved.

    And war has always inspired songwriting. Even if we look as far back back as the American Civil War we find songs that vehemently oppose war as well as songs that justify or glorify war as a necessary means for a “noble cause”.

    “Down By The Riverside” might actually predate the Civil War. The song is based on Isaiah 2:4 : “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The song’s message is very clear. The author/authors leave no doubt, God doesn’t desire war & as children of God mankind is called to “lay down their swords & shields” and don’t engage in war anymore. It’s a very clear simple pacifist message.

    “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a great example for a song that not only justifies war but also presents war as something noble or even holy. Julia Ward Howe wrote her famous lyrics in 1861.

    “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea/With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me/ as He died to make men holy
    Let us die to make men free.” 

    Julia Ward Howe presents soldiers as Christ-like , linking their willingness to die /their sacrifice to Christ’s sacrifice. The song was written for the Union Army encouraging the troops to take upon themselves the great task of bringing about the “judgement of the wicked” (instead of leaving it up to God.) 

    This song might very well be when it all began. We are wondering whether that’s when the myth of the American soldier as a heroic Christ-like figure whose sacrifice helps bring about a juster better freer world began?
    Soldiers do not only die “to make men free”, they also kill. And regardless of how noble a cause ending slavery in the South was,  the North’s prime motivation in fighting the war were economic reasons, cotton & the sales markets in the South.
    The American Military is often seen & presented  as defenders of freedom. Just think of the catch phrase “freedom is not free”. The American public likes to believe that their military engages in armed conflicts & invades foreign countries for a noble higher purpose, like freeing the concentration camps & ridding the world of facism during WW II and fighting terrorism in the Middle East.

    In our opinion, “The Balad of Ira Hayes” presents its protagonist Ira Heyes in this tradition: Ira Hayes served in WW II, a war that is often seen as a just war. He helped raise the flag over Ivo Jima, Japan which in itself is considered a heroic deed. Some would argue that he directly helped end fascism in Japan & thus made the world a better freer place. Ira is the personification of a “war hero” and he is presented and honored by the song as such. The song is NOT an anti-war song at all. The song is not critical of war and the killing / violence that is involved.
    “The Balad of Ira Hayes” is a song that raises the question of how a “war hero” is treated back home in the United States. Peter LaFarge was always concerned with the treatment of Native Americans and this song is no exception. We credit the song with bringing awareness to poor conditions on Native American Reservations and the fact that an unproportionally high number of Native Americans, African Americans and other minority groups serve in the American military and yet are treated like shit and not like equals when they come back home. Ira was no exception.
    However, what we find problematic is that the song seems to put out the message “Theses are our heroes we need to treat them better!” when in reality these people have taken lives and EVERY person deserves to lead a dignified life and have access to clean water, whether you served in the military or whether you are an activist in the American Indian movement and despise the United States of America.

    So yes, “Ira Hayes” is problematic and we have mixed feelings about the song. Same as we have mixed feelings about Tom’s song “Red Oak Texas”.

    Language, nuances and the intention of the author matter. We’d like to list several songs that are very clear in their anti-war message: “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” is very clear.

    “And when the papers all were signed
    And a million copies made
    They all joined hands end bowed their heeds
    And grateful prayers were prayed
    And the people in the streets below
    Were dancing round and round
    And guns and swords and uniforms
    Were scattered on the ground”

    It’s the same message we find in Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Die In My Footsteps”:

    “If I had rubies and riches and crowns
    I’d buy the whole world and change things around
    I’d throw all the guns and the tanks in the sea
    For they are mistakes of a past history.
    Let me die in my footsteps
    Before I go down under the ground.”

    Like “Down By The Riverside” long before them, both songs clearly condemn war, all wars. The message is that all guns, tanks, bombs are instruments of death & destruction and contrary to a widespread American believe there is no just war and no matter how noble the cause it does not justify war and violence.

    Another great anti-war song which is also very clear in its message is Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of John Brown”.
    We just love this song and used to blast this song at top volume. What we think is especially poignant about the song is the depiction of the mother. When you walk around a big parking lot in America you can’t help but notice bumper stickers like “Proud Mom of a Marine”. We always wonder about these people. You see them in sweatshirts and t-shirts getting off on their sons wearing a uniform. We won’t even get into what Freud would have to say about this… But there are certainly American parents who present being a soldier as a desirable career & life goal and influence & pressure their kids into joining the military. Maybe the twin brothers Tom sings about had such a mother or father.

    “Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
    You make me proud to know you hold a gun
    Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
    And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”

    Dylan’s anti-war message is direct and clear.

    “Don’t you remember, ma, when I went off to war
    You thought it was the best thing I could do?
    I was on the battleground, you were home acting proud
    You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”
    “Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
    I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’
    But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
    And I saw that his face looked just like mine”

    And there are so many more amazing anti-war songs. From Dylan’s “Masters of War” to Phil Ochs’ “What are you Fighting for” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”. A more recent song that is worth looking into is Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust”  Here we have a soldiers somewhere in the middle East, talking to his comrade Bobby who died in combat. Through the narrators eyes we see what a perversion war really is.

    “Well I dreamed of you last night
    In a field of blood and stone
    The blood began to dry
    The smell began to rise
    Well I dreamed of you last night
    In a field of mud and bone
    Your blood began to dry
    The smell began to rise
    We’ve got God on our side
    We’re just trying to survive
    What if what you do to survive
    Kills the things you love
    Fear’s a powerful thing
    It’ll turn your heart black you can trust
    It’ll take your God filled soul
    Fill it with devils and dust
    It’ll take your God filled soul
    Fill it with devils and dust”

    There’s almost no image more powerful than saying that war / combat turns your “God filled soul” black and fills it with “devils and dust”. But that’s exactly what happens to people. And that’s what happened to those twin brothers but they wouldn’t admit it. They killed, their souls turned black, they came home, they killed themselves. But instead of presenting it that way and showing the depravity and the darkness Tom seems to focus on presenting them as “war heroes” who couldn’t heal. It’s the “Those are our heroes! We need to help them” all over again. But we’ll get to “Red Oak Texas’ in a 2nd comment.

    Our point is that all the songs we have mentioned so far are clear and easy to understand and leave no doubt where the author stands, whether they are pro -war or anti-war.

    Thanks for mentioning Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues”. We think the song is also very clear and has a clear anti-war message.

    Maybe eighteen was too early
    Maybe thirty or forty is too
    Did you get your chance to make peace with the man
    Before He sent down his angels for you?

    When he suggests that “eighteen was too early” but that “thirty or forty is too” Isbell is really saying that it is never right to enlist in the military, there is no right age. “Did you get your chance to make peace with the man?” is a very powerful line because it points out that war & being involved in it is indeed sinful and requires making amends/asking for forgiveness.
    “Dress Blues” is a very powerful genuine song that presents Southern society & its patriotism while being clear that war is wrong.

    Isbell also has another song worth mentioning, “Tour of Duty”.

    I taught myself to tolerate the pain,
    All the loneliness and boredom and the work I did in vain.
    All the work we did in vain. Now I’m not the same as I was.
    I’ve done my tour of duty now I’ll try to do what a civilian does.

    “All the work we did in vain” indicates that the killing and dying is always in vain.

    And there are many examples of pro-war songs as well. One of the best examples is probably “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. The song is grammatically & historically & ethically wrong. Neither is it correct to say “I’m proud to be an American WHERE at least I know I’m free” nor do “the men who died” give anybody the right to be free. Soldiers don’t hand out the bill of rights. In the tradition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” this song presents the military as defenders of freedom.

    With all that being said, our point is that language matters. Nuances matter. Artists choose their words carefully to present a situation in a certain light or to bring a specific message across. Each single song we discussed leaves no doubt where its author stands.
    Why then all the confusion, irritation, anger on our part after listening to and reading about Tom Russell’s “Red Oak Texas” ? Because Tom is either not clear or he is clear , and if the latter is the case then that means that the song is not critical , or at least not critical enough, of war &. military and does not have a anti-war message.
    We will get to that in Part 2

  4. Part 2:

    Authentic lingo is cool & can even be crucial.
    One of the many reasons why the two of us love Tom Russell’s epic folk opera “The Rose of Roscrae” is that Tom paints an authentic picture of the Old West by using authentic language. It adds color & authenticity and makes the experience of listening so much better, cooler & edgier.

    Obviously it’s very despicable if somebody uses the N-word. However, if somebody wrote a song about racism in the South and had the protagonist , whom he clearly & with great care, presents as a hateful racist bigoted person , call a black boy a “ni**er” , the use of authentic lingo, even if it’s something as ugly & hateful as the N-word, would be something of value to bring a point across.

    One of the reasons why Jason Isbell’s song “Dress Blues” feels so genuine is the fact that he paints a very authentic picture of Southern communities. Having grown up in Alabama he certainly knows what he’s talking about and we, the listeners, can tell. (Drinking sweet tea out of Styrofoam cups, flags by the side of the highway, scripture on grocery store signs)

    Let’s talk about “Red Oak Texas”.
    “Forget about the TV News. It’s just opinion & commercials. Hell, I’d rather hear Elvis sing “Blue Suede shoes”. You wanna get some local color. Drive on up to Red Oak and hear about the twin war heroes from that town….”
    When we listen to the opening lines of Tom Russell’s new song “Red Oak Texas” it’s possible that we are listening to a narrator who is a rather simple -minded Old Timer from rural Texas. In that case, yes, having Redneck Grandpa talk like that would certainly feel very authentic. Bingo. An older male Texas person would most definitely call anybody who served in the military a “war hero”.
    The question is though: Who is the narrator? Is he a fictional character? Or is it just Tom?

    Unfortunately we have reason to believe that the narrator’s point of view is also Tom’s point of view. And if that’s the case then the use of the term “war hero” is not equivalent to using authentic lingo but is merely Tom having been indoctrinated & desensitized enough to not being aware of the political implications & the world view that goes with such a term. Unless he chose the term “war hero” purposefully…..

    Recently we traveled to Southern Utah to attend two Tom Russell concerts. That was on February 8 and 9. Previously we had made a comment on Tom’s FB page. We voiced concern over the term “war heroes”. We weren’t sure whether Tom ever read our comment or not? However, when he passed us in the hallway of the first venue TR greeted us with a military salute. A joke? Maybe…..
    But when he started talking about war veterans at both shows it dawned on us that he had indeed read our comment & had taken it personally. At the end of the second concert TR made it clear how honored he was to perform at a veterans home the other day and said: “They are HEROES to me!!!!!” And when he said that he cast an angry glance at us. After the concert he pretty much looked through us. We wouldn’t have brought up the topic but would very much love to hear Tom Russell’s thoughts & what inspired him to write the song.
    Like you we believe in communication & in creating healthy community. A fan community can thrive if there’s dialogue, dissent, communication, connection, interaction.
    We love what you wrote about cultivating communities that become places of positivity:
    “I think that is how we cultivate communities that become places of positivity for the members within. I think that participating in positive communities is a way to generate and radiate positivity throughout broader spaces”.
    That’s why having this discussion, uncomfortable as it may be for some, is important. We feel strongly about pacifism and it’s not always easy to not get too emotional when discussing this. The topic war and militarism in itself is so dark, negative and destructive. But if discussing something as negative as that still leads us all to a better place then it’s definitely something very positive and valuable. If we can all respect each other’s opinions and can freely express those then we know that we are part of a positive community.

    Because Tom extra used the word “heroes” when referring to veterans it’s  pretty obvious to us that using the term “war heroes”in the song is not just a case of attempting to use authentic lingo but is much rather a reflection of Tom’s point of view (a rather positive view of military personnel)
    Let’s not forget that Tom also wrote “Sterling Hayden”. He totally idolizes & glorifies Hayden in the song for his military service in WW II:

    “He ran guns through the German lines in World War II
    The Viking God stood six-feet-five”

    We don’t believe that you can ignore that the twin brothers are not fictional characters.
    We can’t unread the Wall Street Journal article about the Godski Brothers. And we can’t unwatch the video about them.
    We have to admit, the video footage from the funeral of the older twin and the speech the younger brother gave really upset us. We got about 30 seconds into it and then we had to stop watching.
    His twin brother has committed suicide because of his inability to deal with his war experiences and yet there is the younger brother all dressed up in his uniform, looking stoic, declaring defiantly: “We are not victims. We are warriors” and then he pretty much went home and killed himself also. To us there is nothing endearing about somebody who is too proud and too stubborn to admit that he is suffering and that he is a victim of trauma, much less accepting his own guilt and that he might have made wrong life choices. There was no “maybe 18 was too young” like in the Jason Isbell song.

    We are wondering whether there’s ever any moral statement in the song? A moment of clarity, an epiphany of sorts? Or does the song just tell the story of two “war heroes” who just didn’t learn “how to heal”?
    And that would not make it an anti-war song but rather a song that creates understanding & sympathy & compassion for veterans and the “great sacrifice they make for America and for freedom’s sake”. Without condemning war. As the author of the song Tom purposefully made the choice to write a song about those two brothers and give them their 4 minutes of fame.

    If we had to write a song about the Godski Brothers we’d write a song about two people that were blindly obedient and so indoctrinated until the last days of their lives that they could never acknowledge their pain, their mistakes, their guilt and that they were victims of their own government, of the lies, of the propaganda. It would be worth writing a song about.

    If Tom’s song deconstructs the myth of the “War Hero” by showing how two brothers who were perceived as war heroes, were troubled, weak, helpless, unable to cope and ultimately committed suicide, there would be something valuable in the song. Suicide is certainly not heroic but an act of utter desperation. It’s generally rather perceived as cowardly than heroic.

    But if it’s just a song along the lines of “Oh look at our poor boys. They went to defend our country from them evil Muslims and then they come home and nobody helps them and they go kill themselves” then it’s very one sided,  more like advertising for the”Wounded Warrior Project” or other organizations that help veterans.

    During our travels across America we have met our share of veterans. A few years ago we rode bicycles across Colorado & stopped at a Church of the Nazarene because it was humid & 115 degrees. That church let three homeless men live in the church’s basement. One of them was Tyler from Florida. He had been a Scout Sniper in Afghanistan and was a purple heart recipient. Even though he had done things like camouflaging as a rock & moving two inches a day (!) to sneak up on an encampment of Taliban fighters , which could kind of be considered brave & heroic ….or nuts, he made it very very clear that there was nothing heroic about war. At church some of the old men would walk up to Tyler to thank him for his service. Tyler would shake his head and look at his shoes saying: “No! No, please don’t thank me. Don’t thank me!!!!! I killed people over there.” He was an alcoholic and said that he had to spend the rest of his life living with the enormous unbearable guilt of having killed people, among them young boys.
    Last we heard from Tyler he had just gotten out of a mental health facility. Tyler returned to Florida . He went to culinary arts school to be a chef. But we never heard from him again.
    Our hearts went out to him & we had nothing but compassion & love for him.
    But Tyler knew that he was a victim as well as a victimizer & he was honest enough to admit that.
    Most of the other war veterans we have met acknowledged that war is ugly. They sounded absolutely disillusioned & at some point each of them had an epiphany: “I can’t go on doing this. I can’t go on being a part of this. We are not supposed to kill each other.” and then they left the military and never looked back.
    We are wondering whether any similar sentiments can be found in “Red Oak Texas”?
    If not, then it’s a very controversial song.
    It wouldn’t be Tom’s first controversial song.

    Artists do not have to be objective. They can be as emotional subjective, wrird, off as they like. Music lovers are not required to be objective when they are listening to music (“I like the song because I like it.’)
    Imagine somebody wrote a song about the KKK and glorified them as proud men with white hoods or something like that. Wouldn’t it be the task of any music critic / journalist to be objective and also to a degree hold the author of the song accountable? In the case of the imaginary KKK song you wouldn’t write: “It’s a song about the brave heroic men of the KKK.” But you’d say “It’s a racist song that portrays the members of the KKK as heroic and brave.”
    With that being said, as you were looking at the songs on Tom’s album from the angle “Was that thing called fame really worth?” we can see why you kept the word “war HERO” in your review. And if it was a Highschool football hero who faded away we wouldn’t object at all. In case of “war hero” maybe you could have made it clear that the song presents its protagonists as such and that it’s not necessarily how you personally perceive soldiers.

    Steven, thanks for the invite to share our thoughts. We really enjoyed this.
    Peace, Julia and Gina

  5. Allow me to state at the outset that what follows should be read as a reaction to the two preceding comments. For reasons that will become clear as you read on, I am disengaging from this discussion upon the conclusion of these remarks.

    I should begin with an apology to Mr. Tom Russell. Until the two comments directly above were posted, it was not apparent to me that I had unwittingly been enlisted as a collaborator in the construction of a platform upon which two individuals who are harboring resentment against you could continue to grind their axes. In so far as you are not here to defend yourself and since I would not presume to speak for you in defense or explanation, I can only make a course correction based on my new understanding. Disengagement is the best road open to me. Again, my sincerest apologies sir.

    While I do not wish to invite any further commentary from my partners in this dialogue, I do wish to register my reaction to some of the things that have been said. I do this in hopes of minimizing the extent to which my reputation will be negatively impacted by virtue of my participation in this exchange.

    Our conversation got underway with some fairly simple observations. In response to my review, the following questions were raised: “Is war hero an appropriate term?” . . . in the song ‘Red Oak Texas’? . . . on the album ‘October in the Railroad Earth’? . . . in my review? In Americana music writ large?

    The parties posing those questions stated that they “expect better” and assured me that one “always” finds pacifistic imagery in said catalog.

    I was hopeful that by challenging the totalizing fashion in which they had applied their ‘expectations’ as the appropriate determiner of what is and what isn’t acceptable to Americana audiences and by then pointing toward a few examples of songs from the core of the catalog (one classic and the other fairly recent), that I could open up an honest discussion about the complex issues that are ushered in by symbols of war and warrior alike. I hoped that this could become a beneficial and perhaps even an enjoyable discussion for the members of this community.

    Unfortunately, it seems that this entire exercise has been one sided. The other parties involved have not been seeking a discussion of areas where our opinions don’t align precisely. They’ve been seeking to restate their position and fashion it into a cudgel to be used against Mr. Russell.

    In furtherance of these goals they have cherry-picked evidence that supports their argument while ignoring that which does not. This occurs from the broadest levels to the most particular details.

    On the broadest levels . . . they juxtapose ‘Down by the Riverside’ with ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and conclude for all of us that while the former is acceptable Americana music, the latter is not. I find this amusing since the latter was quoted/paraphrased in what I consider to be one of last year’s finest albums (Lucero ‘Among the Ghosts’ . . . in the song ‘To My Dearest Wife’).
    In their critique of ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ the provide further evidence that there will be no allowances made for nuanced readings of symbolically rich texts. If a song isn’t didactic to the point of being pedantic in its repudiation of the American military, it cannot be permitted entry into the hallowed halls of ‘Real Americana’.

    I find their recourse to Dylan entertaining. It’s as if they are unaware that Mr. Dylan is almost as famous for his ability to slip the yokes of those movements who would make him their mouthpiece as he is for writing excellent songs. One wonders how he would feel about being put to work in service of such a zealous and dogmatic policing of the borders.

    That trend continues when they cherry pick ‘Devils and Dust’ but fail to even consider Springsteen’s much more relevant tune ‘Born in the USA’. It would have been a particularly fruitful text to introduce since every four years, like clockwork, people who fail to appreciate nuance put that song to work in service of their political campaigns only to be rebuffed by Mr. Springsteen at his earliest opportunity.

    I also take issue with their quoting of the Isbell song. Was it a conscious choice to omit the ‘maybe’ in front of “18 was too early”? Was it a conscious choice to ignore the lines “Nobody here could forget you . . . you showed us what we had to lose”?

    This matters to me precisely because there are real people at the center of this discussion. I feel that Mr. Russell, as the artist deserves better from this publication. That being said, I suspect that Mr. Russell is more than capable of either taking care of himself or shaking it off in line with whatever his personal preference might be.

    But Matthew Connoley was a real person too. The song ‘Dress Blues’ is about a real person. It was written for him and his family and friends. The Godski brothers were real people too. Every bit as real as the young man named Tyler that my interlocutors got to meet and get to know on a personal level.

    I don’t want to be part of a conversation where the line that separates two dimensional characters who are ‘Redneck Grandpas’, or ‘blindly obedient’, ‘indoctrinated’, ‘victims’, ‘weak’, ‘helpless’, or ‘cowardly’ from real people like Tyler is the issue of whether those people agree with Julia and Gina or not. The bumper stickers and sweatshirts that they dismiss as indicators of the bearer’s lack of enlightenment are on the cars and bodies of the “Mamas and Grandmamas” who love you because “that’s all they know how to do”.

    I’m not saying we can’t have conversations about the difficult issues surrounding the American military. I am saying that I don’t want to be a part of a conversation that dehumanizes people in service of an abstract ideal. Especially when the fuel in the engine driving one half of the conversation is hurt feelings and a bruised ego because somebody didn’t respond to your critique of their work in a manner you had hoped for.

    If Tyler is out there . . . I appreciate what you sacrificed and I’m sorry that you went through that. I hope that you are doing well and that you get to live the rest of a long life in peace.

    If there are any families like Matthew Connoley’s reading this . . . I simply don’t have the words to express my appreciation for your sacrifice.

    If Mr. Russell were to read this . . . thanks for a great album and for giving voice to people and ideas who might otherwise get lost in the noise.

    To all the Redneck Grandpas . . . Have a cold one for me!

    1. We don’t have bruised egos and don’t harbor resentment against Tom Russell. And if we had resentment it had nothing to do with the comment we made. Our comment was meant for you and not for Tom Russell. It was not about the song “Red Oak Texas” it was about you using the term “war hero” in your review.

      We had the exact same beliefs before “Red Oak Texas” and before ever listening to Tom Russell’s music, and we will have them long after and will always continue to fight the good fight.

      Right from the beginning you misunderstood our comment. We never said there were no pro-war songs in the American folk catalog. You will find pro-war songs and anti-war songs and yes, we could have come up with 20 more examples but at some point the comment would have gotten too long so we only picked a few. There’s nothing “amusing” about our choices. The point was, there are those and those songs and if you use a pro-military term such as “war hero” you take a stand and identify yourself as being pro-military. If an artist such as Tom Russell brings out a controversial song like that then own up to it and take the heat. If he publishes a pro-military song then why is it a problem that we point out that it is a pro-military song?

      When you thank people for their “sacrifice” you also show your true colors. Sad. We had people in our family who were executed by the Nazis for resisting the draft. Talk about sacrifice. People who die for peace are heroes. We guess there are always only a few righteous ones.

      We will take the discussion to other platforms and will certainly continue creating awareness. Militarism is so ingrained in society that people are not aware of how indoctrinated they are.

  6. One last thing, Steven. You invited us to share our thoughts & we were gracious enough to take the time to sit at a table from each other for several hours, talking, discussing, choosing songs. We put time & thought & care into this and are pleased with the results. You don’t even had the decency to reply directly to us but instead chose to talk about us and doing so by simply calling us “two individuals”. Isn’t that the ultimate way of “dehumanizing” somebody? And all that just because what we came up with wasn’t what you hoped for. You were rude, disrespectful & impolite. So much for the “positive communities” you hoped to establish….
    Sometimes people become as mean & arrogant as you did because deep down they know that the other person is right but something keeps them from acknowledging it.
    BTW, your apology to Tom was so over the top that we had to laugh. Why would YOU apologize for a comment WE made? People will always discuss art. There’s nothing offensive about it. And your reviews aren’t worth anything if you’re not willing, at times, to offend the artist and call things out for what they are. THAT’S the job of a music critic. Dare to offend!!!!

    1. I think it’s time to close this discussion. Steven has stated he is disengaging therefore there’s no reason to expect him to reply to your name calling (“mean & arrogant”, come on!). We can only agree to disagree and there’s no point in continuing any dialogue as it seems it would only deteriorate further.

      1. It was a great discussion. It’s strange when people shy away from discussing controversial topics. Just because Steven doesn’t want to reply to a discussion he invited us to have, doesn’t mean that we have to disengage from it as well. His reply was mean & arrogant. We were stating a fact. It was not name calling. We received many very positive responses to our comments on here. Interesting enough people only feel comfortable to talk in private messages on FB. Why is everyone so afraid of having a public open honest discussion? We live in strange times… People have no courage anymore…

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